Monday, January 05, 2009

Houston Insists On Proving Me Wrong

Mississippi State 82, Houston 65
Playing well in the early going, Houston had inspired me to declare them a team to watch for in the second half of the season. They responded to my praise by going out in the next game and completely stinking it up. If you're a good team, it takes a lot to lose by 17 points to Mississippi State, and that's what happened here. They couldn't shoot (28% from the field), and they couldn't defend (46% shooting for Mississippi State, with 18 assists on their 30 made field goals). The computers still say that Houston is under-performing, but they've dug themselves quite a hole with the losses so far this year. They still have a shot for an at-large bid, but they're going to have to play really, really well the rest of the way. It's possible, but I wouldn't bet on it. For Mississippi State, the win here keeps their record respectable (8-5), but their resume is still very weak overall. This is probably their best win, and they have losses to San Diego and Charlotte, among others. It's always possible for them to do what Kentucky did last year, which was to go 11-5 in conference and come out of nowhere to steal an at-large bid. But Mississippi State doesn't have that kind of talent, even with an easy SEC West schedule.

#6 Wake Forest 94, BYU 87
Wake Forest snapped BYU's 53 game home winning streak, in a very impressive performance by a team that is running under the radar as much as any Top Ten ranked ACC team possibly can. They won this game with guard play, and guard play will be there for them all season, but the one question I have is with their inside play. Against smaller teams, James Johnson is a force down low (22 points and 15 rebounds here), but if he can be neutralized by another big man then I don't see where Wake Forest gets their rebounding from. Al-Farouq Aminu is talented enough, but he has been inconsistent this year (he had a mediocre game here, for example). Wake Forest will be ranked safely inside the top five in the nation when the polls come out today, but I still think that they need a signature win to garner some attention from casual fans. This is their best win by far, but as impressive as snapping a 53 game home winning streak is, most fans don't realize how good BYU really is. Wake Forest will get that chance on Sunday when North Carolina comes to town, but they're not going to be a fun team to play coming off that lost to Boston College. For BYU, it's always tough to lose a streak like that. But it's never embarrassing to lose to a top team like Wake Forest, and there's no question that BYU is still in a duel with UNLV for the top spot in the Mountain West, a conference which will most likely get at least two teams, and which is dueling with the SEC for the recognition in the computer rankings as the sixth best conference in the land.

Washington 68, Washington State 48
Possibly the best game yet played by star freshman Isaiah Thomas, for a Washington team that has felt all year like they've been under-performing (other than this big win, of course). I think part of the misconception is that they have four really good starters that even casual Pac-10 fans know (Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon, Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas). But other than that, they're pretty thin. That said, I don't know if anybody in the Pac-10 is thinner than Washington State. If you don't have a good bench, you're going to have trouble beating Washington, with their aforementioned four stars. Tony Bennett is good at coaching games, and his defensive style will work even when he lacks talent. But he also needs to recruit talent, and so far his recruiting performance has really been lacking. With the players he's putting out there, especially off the bench, no coach in the world could coach this team to Pac-10 contention. And what happens next year when Taylor Rochestie, Daven Harmeling, Aron Baynes and Caleb Forrest will have graduated? Washington, on the other hand, moves to 10-3 without any bad losses other than that season opener to Portland. They have no good out-of-conference wins, either, so they're going to need to win a lot of Pac-10 games. They will need to go a minimum of 10-8 in conference (plus a win or two in the Pac-10 tournament) to make the Tournament, so they're off to a good start with the win here.

Illinois State 86, Creighton 64

This big win didn't even ripple the national sports media pond, but it sure will resonate through the fan bases of the Missouri Valley. It's the first hint that this 14-0 Illinois State record is for real. There are two questions now: The first is whether Illinois State can win enough games to earn an at-large bid, considering the fact that they will have played a weak schedule, and will end up with zero wins over Top 25 teams. I think that the answer is yes, as long as they can finish somewhere around 14-4 in the Valley. That would mean at least 25 wins, and would surely mean a slew of RPI Top 100 wins. The second question is whether they're the favorites in the Missouri Valley, since they just destroyed the team that would seem to be their top competitor. I would actually say no to this question. This win was very impressive, and I don't see anybody other than Creighton challenging Illinois State. But things always get more complicated once you take the lead in a conference. A team like Illinois State, that has not competed for the Valley title in some time (they last won the conference in 1998), will find it quite different being the hunted team atop the conference. They're due for a reality check soon, and I will need to see them bounce back from their first loss with a win. Creighton has a lot of experience winning this conference (they've won it six times since the last championship for Illinois State), and I'm going to stick with them until Illinois State wins more than one game over a good team.

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